Congratulations! You and your small group from church are heading on a mission trip to Point Hope, Alaska with Lutheran Indian Ministries. You'll be meeting new people, building relationships, and spreading the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hooray for you!
Since your group decided to go on this trip, you've put in hours of research and training. You've read all about the Inupiaq people who live there and even watched a few Netflix documentaries about life on the frozen tundra. Your group underwent a three-week training course about ministering to other cultures, and now, your bags are packed with an array of fun kids activities that are a part of your VBS curriculum.
You've even spent three days with Dave & Rosemary Sternbeck, LIM staff in Fairbanks, Alaska learning about the work that has already been done with this community and what they need from you while you are there.
You are ready! Your small, twin-engine plane is descending on the barren land below. Nobody in the plane is talking - they all have butterflies in their stomach, like you. Your heart is pounding in your chest, mostly from excitement, but there is a little bit of fear, as well. This is it. This is what you have been preparing for the last six months!
But then, things start to go wrong.
There is nobody waiting to meet you, even after the pilot has finished unloading your cargo. He says he can't wait any longer - he has a schedule to keep.
You're on your own. In the middle of a field. In polar bear country.
Your books didn't tell you how to navigate this unfamiliar landscape. You can't even figure out which way is north! The documentaries you watched didn't tell you how to defend yourself should you come face to face with an 800-pound polar bear. You are desperately lost, completely out of your normal surroundings, and more scared than you've ever been. All you want to do is go home.*
This is exactly how most young Alaska Natives feel when they get dropped off for their first day of college in an urban area. Scared and alone.
Fairbanks has a population of just over 35,000 people, not big by most of our standards, especially if you live near a mega-metropolis like Chicago or New York. But for a young adult coming from a village like Point Hope, with a population of 700, it's huge and foreign. (The on-campus student population at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks alone is seven times that size!)
According to a University of Alaska report, of the less than 70% of Native youth that graduate high school and then go on to college, only 10% will finish their college degree. Dropped in an unfamiliar place, often very different from home, without family or community, they leave prior to graduation to return home. Unfortunately, many of them return to villages where jobs are scarce and their children will likely follow in their footsteps.
That's where Teen Camp comes in.
The purpose of Teen Camp is to raise up Alaska Natives to be Christian leaders. The plan is two-fold: share the Gospel and its life-changing message AND acclimate rural Native teens to the city.
"Our number one goal with Teen Camp," explains Dave Sternbeck, "is to show Christ's love and grace to these kids and to grow their faith, while helping them hang on to their heritage. But, we are also teaching them the skills they need to navigate the city and the problems that are likely to arise while they work toward a higher education, so that they can be the leaders for their people. Then on top of all that, we're just trying to build relationships with them, so that we can continue mentoring them after they've left. A mature faith doesn't happen in a week."
Amazing things are happening in those relationships; they don't end when the kids go home. Shortly after last year's Teen Camp, which led to six teens to be baptized, Dave and Rosemary received a call from a frantic young woman. Alana** had returned to her village only to learn that her father had moved with his new wife to another village. He made it clear that Alana was not welcome in their new home.
Not knowing where else to turn, Alana called the Sternbecks. Because of the relationship they had built, Alana knew that she had a safe place to go. By the end of the summer, Alana was enrolled at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and ready to move on to the next part of her life. "We became her family when she had no one else," explains Rosemary. "It wasn't easy for any of us involved, but, I am so grateful she called us. Who knows where she'd be now if she hadn't come to Teen Camp?"
But the story goes even further than that. Alana was first introduced to Lutheran Indian Ministries as a small child when a church group came to her village on a mission trip. That group then returned, year after year, to Alana's village, and the volunteers saw promise in the little girl, nurtured the relationship, and eventually suggested she attend Teen Camp.
"The volunteers we work with are so important to this ministry!" Dave says emphatically, "Alaska is too big for just two people. There are 229 villages in the state that are only accessible by boat or plane, so there's no way we can reach all of them as often as we need. Without those volunteers, we wouldn't have a Teen Camp, because we wouldn't have the relationships we have with the villages and the youth."
So what is the cost of NOT having Teen Camp? It's lost souls and lost villages.
Dave elaborates, "The reality is that, for all kids, not just Alaska Natives, there are voices trying to draw them away from their faith and away from the Lord. In Alaska's rural villages, just like in large cities, there is the draw of alcohol and drugs, heresy and false teachings, that fill a void that should be filled with Jesus. Teens need a faith of substance. They need to know where to go when they have problems, when their world is in flux, and we show them that the answers are in the Bible. It never changes, and it never fails. Our next generation of leaders, especially in native villages, need to be grounded in their faith and immersed in the Word."
This year's Teen Camp, "Fanning into Flame," is set to have more than 20 Alaska Native teens. Please pray with us for eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that are open and tender to the Gospel.
*The story about the volunteers left outside of Point Hope is a true story of one of our groups of volunteers. They did eventually get picked up by Point Hope folks and made it back home safely after their trip.
**Name changed for confidentiality.